TELEVISION / You don't have to lie to get in here, but it helps

IN THE age of the VCR it shouldn't present a problem when good drama is broadcast at lunchtime. Nor need a viewer be fazed by the identity of the programme's source, but for these two reasons Scene (BBC 2), a production line of half-hour plays from BBC Schools, is not the ratings puller it could be. Apparently the family-friendly early evening slot the strand deserves is being mooted. With Peter Barnes, John Godber, Howard Schuman and Willy Russell among the contributing writers, there shouldn't be a shortfall in audiences.

The idea of Scene is to offer English teachers a junior Play for Today, where social issues are confronted in the context of entertainment. Like the pyromaniac Chemistry Teacher of the Year featured in Class Action (C4), which returned with more lively reports from the education frontline, Scene proves that grabbing the attention of novices with smoke, explosions and laughter is sound in both theory and practice.

Like much of the best television aimed at - for want of a better phrase - young adults, yesterday's Scene play 'Teaching Matthew' married unobtrusive didacticism to fresh, imaginative comedy. The script by Al Hunter-Ashton (who also played a cartoon copper), about a black trainee teacher who goes to draconian lengths to make his brother revise for his GCSEs, sang the praises of learning. You can imagine 16-year-olds all over the country, like Adrian Lester's scampish Matthew, groaning at the prospect of a lesson within a lesson, a half-hour homily about racial integration through examination success. But if all homilies were this good we'd still be a nation of church-goers.

There was a clever metaphor about legality coursing through the script. While big brother Lester bows and scrapes to the local constabulary and even plays policeman himself by handcuffing Matthew to a standard lamp, he ends up breaking the law to get Matthew into the exam room, through which the Bill, like a couple of Keystone Cops, give chase.

Tugging Matthew in the other direction, where lie freedom, football and a dead-end job on a market stall, is his friend Nosty, who dons a balaclava, steals into the garden and causes the conflagration that he hopes will let his lamp- clamped friend out of the house. Unlike the pyromaniac Chemistry Teacher of the Year, Nosty doesn't know how to play with fire.

The drama taught that to ignore education is to play with fire, that to drop out in the name of choice means depriving oneself of choice. Choice, of course, is the sitting administration's buzz word - as in, you can now choose which state school you send your child to. Class Action carried a devastating report about the way in which the mirage of choice has upped the stakes to a level where parental deceit is standard practice.

According to most of those interviewed, it is quite acceptable to lie about your address in order to get your child in the better schools. A former head teacher, with a crucifix on her wall, said lying was OK by her. A mother from west London found lying produced better results than praying. Places at a Derbyshire school are so priceless that the more affluent people rent small properties within its catchment area for the duration of their child's schooling. The winners are estate agents, whose fortunes have always been a barometer of Government policy - but not, you'd have thought, to this absurd extent.

Thus, the elitism that was once confined to private education is now seeping into the state sector, and the morality of the marketplace, which is no morality at all, claims another victory. There's a BBC Schools morality play in it.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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